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Idylls of art, or pleasure marts?

Idylls of art, or pleasure marts?
You walk into a bustling in-the-process-of-being-upgraded-to-a-posh-market area that exemplifies Delhi's urban villages, which are now hubs of designer stores, cultural spaces and chic restaurants, and you are struck instantly by the stark contrast. Glaringly overt is the difference between the conventional owners’ clique juxtaposed with the uber-rich fashionable class that rents and daunts these areas. Be it Shahpur Jat, Hauz Khas Village, Lado Sarai or Mehrauli – it’s this existing divide that hits you right away.

It is a marvel to see the traditionally-bound villagers, who incidentally own the spaces rented to house up-market designer showrooms and restro-bars, sit outside these chic bistros, smoking chillum and playing cards, as they watch the socialite gentry and the foreigner pack, flocking the area. These villagers-cum-shop owners have seen the transition occur over half a decade and seem content with the income it generates.


NEW MONEY MEETS OLD ASSETS


Sitting at the entrance of Shahpur Jat, is the 50-year-old Dayal Singh clad in a white cotton kurta and dhoti, along with his fellow villagers. He says that this land has been owned by his forefathers, but now their generation has let it out on rent to earn money. ‘Now with so many shops coming up in here, we really don’t have a choice. It’s also a good thing for us as it generates money, but still it isn’t enough because we all stay in joint families. In most of the cases, the shops have been rented out on the ground floor, while we still live on the floors above,’ explains Dayal Singh. As these men sit around chatting, overlooking the influx of shopaholics – both the desi and foreign varieties – the villagers seem content with the money that the shops are producing for them.

His friend Balram Singh, who seems in his forties and dressed similarly, is, like Dayal, a villager-turned-shop owner. Balram pitches in, ‘Business is going well here for these shopkeepers who have taken places from us on rent. This gives us a good way to earn money via the rents we get. Also there are a lot of foreigners who come to this area, making it popular in the process.’

Shahpur Jat offers an array of designer stores and eateries, which you notice as you tread the undulating roads inside the village. Shalini Verma owns a cultural space called Creativegarh, which has been in this area for about 12 years now. ‘Shahpur Jat has come a long way. When we began, back then all the place had were units for well-known designers. Once they left the place experienced a lull, but was back with a bang only a few months later. Today, there's certain energy to the place which is distinct from a mall or any other high-end designer market.’ Creativegarh is a worldwide community of people from all walks of artistic life. It’s a platform for amateur and professional aesthetes to inform of, display, discuss, exchange, buy and sell ideas, services and talents to each other.

When asked why she chose to open her store here, Verma explains, ‘Simply because we liked the feel of the place. The rustic coupled with the contemporary makes for a heady mix. This place has emerged as one of Delhi’s most popular urban villages.’ That’s again the USP of these villages – they imbibe traditionalism laced with current reflections on ideas and tastes in art and decor. There is space for the villagers who have been the original inhabitants of the area as well as the neo-entrants who rent their spaces here.


QUAINT ROMANCE OF QUIRKY VILLAGES


One of Delhi’s youngest and popular fashion designers and artists, Nida Mahmood has a quirkily styled store tucked in the lanes of Shahpur Jat. She explains the existence of this ‘urban village culture’ here, ‘It is a quaint village which lends a certain amount of romance to the ambiance. The beauty of Shahpur Jat is in the uniqueness and non-uniformity one finds here. Because the approach and accessibility are perfect for anyone either from within south Delhi or even from areas farther off, it makes for a great location,’ says Nida, whose store has been around for the past six years.

‘I choose this place over other areas (malls or plush market places) as I liked the quaint romance this village offered. Also what stood out for me for this place were its random quirkiness and its convenient location. I do feel Shahpur Jat has emerged as an urban village and fashion hub in Delhi. It is definitely laden with little old-fashioned nooks and corners full of pleasant places to shop from. The meandering village lanes add to the experience of shopping,’ adds the designer known for her eclectic, contemporary and experimental designs.

Cut to Delhi’s most fashionably populated destinations – Huaz Khas Village. Upon entering it you see a line of fancy couture and pret designer showrooms in a line, pickled with a jazzed up restro-bar in the midst of gangs of oldies playing cards or just ogling around at the sortie of shopomaniacs.  There is a sense of acceptance in their eyes as they throw welcoming glances at the people buzzing in the market. So, with minimal work on their minds, they sit around and chat on everything under the sky, leaving their earnings to come from the land holdings.

Out of the Box, Naivedyam, Pink Room, Golconda Bowl, Maati, Amour, Amici, Gunpowder – the list is endless, as one of the shop-owner informs that there must be nearly 70 plus eateries in this area that is bustling with endless activity. This place gives an opportunity for the newcomer in the food business to experiment and own a store here, at lower rentals compared to Delhi’s posh localities or the malls.


FOOD FOR THOUGHT, AND EXPRESSION


This has also emerged as a cultural space, where various events such as theatre, photography, travel, art, book-reading and cross-disciplinary workshops are held regularly. The owner of Kunzum Café, Ajay Jain clearly explains the dichotomy of the culture which exists here, ‘I have been living in Hauz Khas Village since 2009 and have seen this place grow gradually. Till 2011, it was sleepy, but slowly things changed and once the eateries opened here, this place just exploded with possibilities. With the incoming of food-joints and concept stores, the business here suddenly took off.’

Ajay Jain, who is also an ardent travel blogger, enthusiast and author, says that the villagers here who are not too well-educated realized that giving the space on rent and earning money would eventually be their bread and butter. ‘Most of the residents of this place don’t have very high levels of education and they too realized that via the rentals, they could earn huge amount of money, without doing any work at all,’ he adds. Noticing a significant change in early 2011, Jain notes that the rents shot up nearly 3-4 times.

Compared to a space in one of the glitzy city malls or in the posher areas like Khan Market, South Extension, Defense Colony, Greater Kailash 1 or 2 among others, why did Ajay decide to take up a rented place in this area? ‘Firstly the rents in each of these places are exponentially high. The rent in Khan market is Rs 1,000 per square feet, in other areas like GK-1 or 2, it’s around 600-800 rupees per square feet. By contrast, in Hauz Khas Village, the ongoing rent is about 250 rupees per square feet,’ explains Ajay.

He goes on to say, ‘I also wanted to retain Kunzum as a cultural space than make it into just a regular eatery. This was done on purpose because I feel in a food joint, the attention gets diverted to mere food than the activity happening around (travel, art, photography workshop or a film screening). The rentals at any of the upscale locations in Delhi have sky-rocketing prices and most of the times the owners also don’t give the places to standalone store owners.’

Observing the sudden expansion of the place, he explains the trend. ‘Here you have the freedom to have a standalone store or eatery, but in any other place in Delhi, preference is given to a brand or a chain of restaurants. Also here, the stores are mostly owner-driven. One big advantage that Hauz Khas Village offers compared to any other ‘urban village’ in Delhi is that it is a closed space. By that I mean it has one sole entry and exit point, as compared to Shahpur Jat, Mehrauli or Lado Sarai which have multiple entry points. Also, Shahpur Jat is too spread out. While here it is one lane you can tread, overlooking shops that interest you. I think the USP of Hauz Khas Village lies in the fact it is a close-knit area with a defined perimeter. It is a high density compact place. Everything is available here in a five-minute walking distance,’ says Ajay.

‘As compared to Shahpur Jat, the villagers at Hauz Khas are more adjusting and accommodating’, says a shopkeeper who tried his luck with both places and settled at Hauz Khas Village finally, after purchasing a space. He says he had taken a place on rent in Shahpur Jat for his work, but the villagers there were very interfering and in fact one of the days they even bashed up his office boy, which made him leave the space instantly and shift to Hauz Khas Village instead.


TURF WARS AND FRUITFUL FRICTIONS


It’s true, even the villager is threatened by the arty-shoppers’ ‘neo-outsider syndrome’ and they try and assert their presence from time to time There is a clear message sent out to the non-residents as you enter Hauz Khas Village, as a board sternly proclaims: ‘Parking for Villagers only. Otherwise tyres will be deflated.’

It’s interesting to note a trend in these places which include its highpoints. Sprinkling the desi flavor on the villages, these idyllic places have undulating and haphazard kacchi roads inside, which give you the impression as if you were actually visiting a remote rural Indian. But then, it also seems like an assortment of sorts, because there is an intentional lack of architectural and designing consistency. You can have a boutique on the ground level, above it the owner/villagers resides, while on the second floor, you can have an eatery and above it a bookstore! Of course, on the plus side, this arrangement of the multiple existences of varied spaces adds tangy colours to this urban village.
Tania Ameer

Tania Ameer

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